How Heroin Built a Tent City Filled With Homeless Addicts Within My City
I let The Wall Street Journal break this story before me, shame on me. With that being said, The Wall Street Journal doesn’t know it is intimately as I do. Its writers don’t pass by the hopelessly tragic scene on their way to work. They probably don’t have friends and family members who made it back from what can only be described as an actual living hell — nor friends who died somewhere nearby, if not in the very spots they were taking their photos.
I do though. I know people who lived under those highway overpasses and in those abandoned factories. Ones who made it back from the horrors of heroin addiction and miraculously lived to tell about it. While it was a hot topical story for WSJ, it was a life altering one and a life ending one for so many people I know — and knew. I’m not mad at The Wall Street Journal for writing the story they did, I’m mad at America for caring too late. At the politicians who do a lot of talking on the subject but do little about it, until election time.
The Kensington section of my city of Philadelphia has been ravaged by drugs for as long as I can remember, heroin specifically. Crime and prostitution run rampant there as well. Much of Kensington Avenue itself is under Septa’s (Philadelphia’s public transportation system) elevated train tracks, or as its called locally, the el. The el is infamously known for being used by addicts to get to where they have to go to score, as it stops within walking distance of just about every well known drug corner in the city. The tragedies and atrocities I have seen with my own two eyes on the el are countless.
And being on the actual train is just the tip of the iceberg. Getting off it within a certain five mile run will leave you in the unencumbered wild west. Stops addicts get off at and literally never make it back from. Kensington and North Philly swallow their souls whole and spit them back out — leaving them unrecognizable to even the people who knew them best.
For years, these addicts inhabited a pretty well secluded two mile stretch of train tracks, within walking distance of some of the worst drug corners in the City. This stretch of train tracks, which infamously became known as el campamento, thrived as a “safe space” for addicts to buy and shoot heroin for decades. Last summer, politicians and conrail representatives led an effort to begin cleaning up the tracks. While it sounds like a commendable thing to do, its one that most people knew would give birth to new problems.
While trailers were set up nearby to offer food and health screenings to the homeless addicts who inhabited the tracks during the initial cleanup, as quick as they disappeared one can’t help but feel like the offering hand was little more than a PR stunt meant to save face. Once the cleanup was finished and new fences were installed around the tracks, the new problem most saw coming began to emerge.
Addicts, with nowhere else to go, began setting up camps under local highway and railroad overpasses. Now when I say camps, I mean it quite literally, as I’ve witnessed it with my own two eyes. There is entire tent communities that cover every inch of ground the overpasses themselves do, filled with homeless addicts and their very few belongings. As I drove by one of these overpasses a few weeks ago on my way to work, I seen a young woman pulling clothes out of a bureau, preparing to get dressed and start her day — like you or I do in the privacy of our own bedrooms. Under these overpasses, you’ll find mattresses sprawled out, some complete with end tables, with rows of tents next to them, filled with neighboring addicts.
The city is now leading an effort to clear out these overpasses of the people inhabiting them, as well as the very few things on this earth that belong to them. Gangs of cop cars can be seen clearing the addicts out, followed up by trash trucks and sanitation workers, to remove their belongings.
What I find most interesting about all of this is, someone has began dumping substantial amounts of money into much of the real estate in Kensington and property values in much of the area have began to rise, as city resources have finally been deployed there after almost four decades of nobody doing a single thing to try and improve or clean up the area. As a contractor, I spent the last month in the area, completely renovating a home that is probably worth twice the one I live in today, one I probably could have bought for a fraction of its current worth, three years ago. The area where the money and resources are being poured into has already been dubbed “New Kensington” by the city and its only a matter of time before white, once suburban hipsters follow.
While the city’s efforts are respectable, its motives are questionable and its results have been less than ideal. Granted, its not an easily solved problem. Its one I suspect will haunt Kensington as well as other neighboring parts of Philadelphia for sometime to come. You can’t just ignore a problem for forty years and expect to resolve it overnight. As it stands right now, the city of Philadelphia has not found a way to solve the problem but only to send it elsewhere, a few blocks at a time. A very temporary fix to a potentially unsolvable problem.